24 February 2016

Unlikely Romances: Pepin and Bertrada

A man seeks a divorce and, when told he cannot remarry, not only stays with his current wife for the rest of his life but makes her his full partner. Not the typical ending of such a scenario, but that is what happened between Pepin and Bertrada and why I’ve chosen them as an unlikely romance.

Love was not the deciding factor in early medieval marriages. If it happened, great, but husbands and wives felt lucky if they merely got along. Aristocrats wed to solidify political alliances and amass wealth, often in the form of land. By the standards of their time, the marriage of Bertrada of Laon and Pepin, mayor of the palace, in 744 made sense: they came from two noble families in adjoining territories.

At some point, Pepin did seek to end the marriage, but when and why is unclear. It probably had something to do with their not conceiving right away. This was an age when such a failure was a sign of God’s displeasure.

Two years after the nuptials, Pepin sent an emissary to Pope Zachary asking about illicit marriages. Perhaps he was wondering about consanguinity. He and Bertrada were relatives to the fourth degree (they shared a set of great-grandparents), rather than the preferred seventh.

The historical novelist in me has a lot of questions. Did Pepin and Bertrada quarrel? How long did Bertrada pray to God and maybe a saint for a child? Did she agree to the inquiry or fight it? Did someone who didn’t get along with Bertrada put Pepin up to it?

If Pepin wanted to free himself for another marriage, he didn’t get the answer he wanted. In 747, the pope ruled that remarriage after divorce was forbidden.

Medieval husbands had some options. Couples could live apart.  Even with the wife in the same house, a man could take a concubine and see if she would bear children, although this carried the risk of uncertainty with inheritance rights. An unhappy man could also try to convince his spouse to take the veil, which would annul the marriage.

But it seems like Pepin saw this as a sign to try again with Bertrada. Or maybe the couple was still trying despite Pepin’s inquiry. The same year the pope said no, Pepin and Bertrada conceived. When she delivered Charles (today called Charlemagne) in April 748, her position was secure.

Early medieval sources rarely elaborate on a couple’s sentiment for each other. Apparently, Pepin was a steadfast husband. There are no records of children born outside wedlock or concubines. Even more, he relied on Bertrada to accomplish his political ends. In 754, the counts and bishops elected Pepin as king. And they elected Bertrada as queen, an unprecedented move among the Merovingians they replaced.

Pepin and Bertrada would rule together until Pepin’s death in 768. Taking the widow’s veil, she continued working for their cause, mainly making sure the two sons who inherited the kingdom didn’t tear it apart.

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two novels set in early medieval Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar. She is currently working on Queen of the Darkest Hour, a novel about Charlemagne’s fourth wife, Fastrada.